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Posts Tagged ‘D-Day’

We will remember them….

After the parachute drop at La Fière, I walked back to the car, and after a wait of around an hour to get off the field and back into Ste. Mère, I headed for Utah, the closest landings beach. Here again, the roads were full of WW2 jeeps, lorries and trucks. An amazing sight on these narrow French country lanes. The very same lanes that quite possibly saw some of these same vehicles all that time ago.

Utah was crowded with people. There were quite a few old soldiers there too, as there were all over Normandy this weekend, here to pay tribute to their fallen comrades, their brothers in arms. One such guy saw me sitting at a table in the café there, having a quiet beer, and spoke a few words in passing. Realising I was English, he had a short chat with me. Joking about his small stature, he blamed it on too many parachute drops, compacting him more & more each time. That he could joke about it was testament to the old soldier’s inner strength, or a softening of the memories as time had passed? I asked if any help was available to bring these brave men back to Normandy each year, from the UK government. Last year, explained his companion, a much younger man, there was a lottery grant given, but this year they were refused. No, the UK government won’t give any help, he said.

There can’t be many men left like this old guy, 87 years old and his last visit to Normandy. He won’t be back. He said so himself. They could barely afford the £900 it cost for them both for the weekend. To think that this man, and many more like him fought for the very freedoms we take for granted, and they’re given little in return. I got the distinct feeling from chatting to a few of these survivors, that this is their therapy. Returning to these beaches, these villages and towns is a big part of their coping mechanism. To deny them that, while at the same time spending untold millions on weapons is just wrong, surely?

I drained the last of my beer after shaking the hand of someone who was once a proud soldier, and is now a proud veteran, and wandered off to have a quiet moment or two on the beach.

Back in the car, I drove in the direction of Ste. Marie du Mont, another of the small villages that dot this farming landscape. The church here is famous for having hosted a mass for the liberating forces on the first sunday after the landings took place. I wanted to see it, and to take a picture from the exact same spot as the more famous one from 66 years ago.

The first mass for soldiers, after D-Day was held here.

The church is impressive, rising as so many Norman churches do from the surrounding bocage. It’s the first thing you see of the village from the distance as you approach, and it’s easy to understand why so many steeples were destroyed by both the allies and the beleaguered German forces. The vantage point offered from the steeple would give an immense advantage to snipers, as well as spotters. When I turned the corner into the village, I was stunned to see that the church once more had become the focal point, with a re-enactment of scenes from D-Day and shortly after. Tents were set up on the greens, first-aid posts, ammo stores. There were more GI’s strolling around, and many people in civilian dress, 40’s style. It was like a film set.

Just as it must have been....

Good looking girls, both of them!

Good looking girls, both of them!

Even youngsters took part.

It was amazing. The number of young people taking part in all of this was heartening. People should remember the events of June 6th 1944, and realise the part it played in the freedoms we enjoy today. The only way to continue to enjoy these freedoms is to ensure the stories, the dramas, the fears are played out in scenes like these. To make these events ‘real’ in the eyes and minds of the youth of today. Schools in the UK should organise more visits to these beaches. I seem to remember history began with the Tudors, and ended with the onset of WW1, when I was at school. Chatting to others, they’ve all said pretty much the same thing, and I was stunned to learn how little some people actually know about what took place here in Normandy.

There were small reminders everywhere of what it must have been like to live in an occupied territory. There’s a small museum in the church square, dedicated to the occupation. Outside, there’s a sentry box and a notice on the wall tells the visitor that this is where all young men were to come to be told where they’d be working for the German Army of Occupation. usually this involved being sent away from their homes, to labour camps from where they’d be transported each day to work on the coastal defences. Outside the museum was an old, beaten and battered Renault of the epoch. A notice on the windshield told the reader that this car was requisitioned by the German army (indeed, it had German army plates), but was re-requisioned in the name of the FFI on June 6th, 1944.

Re-requisitioned by the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI) on June 6th, 1944

I wanted to visit the church, and to stand in the same spot where a picture was taken at a mass, the first Sunday after D-Day, in 1944. I had goosebumps as I compared my shot to the one on the wall of the church in the entrance. The only differences were the lack of GI’s that filled the place, though their ghosts remained in my mind’s eye.

Their prayers live on. With grateful thanks to the Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA

Ste. Marie du Mont. The church where GI's celebrated mass on the first Sunday after D-Day.

L'Église de Ste. Marie du Mont

From Ste. Marie du Mont, I moved on, passing jeep after jeep. Drivers and passengers happy to be here in the Normandy sunshine, so different from that day. Happy faces on the roadsides waving and cheering as they drove past. It was like the liberation of France was happening all over again. Deeply moving and sad, yet happy too.

Back in Ste. Mère Église, a fireworks display was planned for the evening, so I settled down with a beer and watched the crowds gather, dancing to the band playing on stage. Though the atmosphere was good, it seemed somewhat at odds. People in uniforms and period dress dancing to electric guitars, bass & drums. Still, the crowd was happy, though I’d have settled more for Glenn Miller than Johnny B. Goode!

The fireworks, fired against the backdrop of the super little church, with its effigy of John Steele hanging limply from his parachute, were simply fantastic. The noise, the sudden flashes and booms really did give the crowd some idea of the kind of maelstrom of light and sound, confusion and disarray that would have been apparent on June 6th 1944. Rising to a crescendo after almost 20 minutes of awe-inspiring beauty, the display came to a close, the appreciative audience cheering loudly and clapping for more.

I do hope you enjoyed this ‘blog, to keep it (hopefully) interesting for the reader, Part Three will be along soon.

Until the next time, au revoir!

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2010

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